Saturday, 30 July 2011

2011/12: Make or Break for Scottish football

The end of July is normally a time of unfettered optimism for Scottish football fans as excitement builds towards the new season. Not this year though, well not for many. For some, pre-season hopes have already been punctured by the early kick-off. Think of the Stranraer fans who seen their side hammered 8-0 at Stair Park in the first round of the Challenge Cup. Or Dundee Utd fans European hopes were dashed before the league had even begun, eliminated from the Europa League on away goals by Slask Wroclaw. At least they got a trip to Poland.

Then there’s yet another player exodus south. This summer’s instalment has already deprived Utd of midfield trio Prince Buaben (Watford), Craig Conway (Cardiff) and Morgaro Gomis (Birmingham), who left Tannadice on ‘Bosman’ free transfers. Inverness’s Adam Rooney joins Gomis at Birmingham, also on a free. Rooney’s goals fired the Highlanders to promotion in 2009/10 and to SPL safety last year.  Craig Bryson and Chris Maguire moved to Derby County, both for fees in the region of £350,000. Bryson was key to Kilmarnock’s over-achievement last year and Maguire enjoyed the best season of his career at Aberdeen; both had forced their way into Craig Levein’s international set-up. Also treading the well-worn path south is First Division Queen of the South’s highly-rated Bob Harris, signing a two-year deal with Ian Holloway’s Blackpool where he’ll compete with another Scot, Stephen Crainey, for the left-back spot.

And it’s not over yet. If David Goodwillie is still wearing tangerine next season, it’s more likely to be the home shirt of Blackpool than Dundee Utd, the Seasiders just one of many interested clubs, headed by Blackburn and Rangers. With Utd manager Peter Houston advising ‘Goodie’ to avoid potential trouble in Glasgow it’s more than likely he’ll end up in England. Motherwell fans will be hoping he’s not joined by their talismanic young forward Jamie Murphy, whose performances have had scouts flocking to Fir Park.

In return, Scotland’s premier clubs have picked up the usual assortment of busted flushes, journeymen and Scots returning home to play out their final years before retirement. Thirty-somethings Callum Davidson (St Johnstone), Gary Teale and Steven Thompson (both St Mirren) will offer their new sides experience and returning to their former clubs may bring out the best in Chris Clark (Aberdeen), Garry O’Connor and Ivan Sproule (both Hibs) but few would argue that Scottish sides have done well this transfer window. Just like the last, when Kilmarnock sold 15-goal Connor Sammon to Wigan, Mark Reynolds and Sol Bamba traded defensive duties at Motherwell and Hibs for Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester. Dundee striker Leigh Griffiths left the First Division club for Wolves reserves.

This trend is nothing new. If we go back to, say, 2007 (almost five full summer transfer windows) and look at the transfers between the SPL and England’s top two divisions we can see just how poorly the SPL does from it dealings with the English Premiership and Championship. Discounting Celtic and Rangers, it’s difficult to find any transfer where the Scottish team was not weakened by selling.

Losing David Murphy and Craig Gordon in 2007 certainly weakened Hibs and Hearts. A similar story unfolded in the summer of 2008 as the capital clubs lost Guillermo Beuzelin, Christophe Berra and Roman Bednar; others departing SPL clubs that season included Don Cowie, Noel Hunt and Ross McCormack, all now proven Championship performers and internationalists. Following them down to England the next summer went Motherwell trio David Clarkson, Christ Porter and Paul Quinn, Hamilton pair Brian Easton and James McCarthy, and Rob Jones and Steven Fletcher of Hibs. In 2010, midfielders James McArthur, Andy Dorman and Jim O’Brien also moved south and Aberdeen’s Lee Miller joined the Scottish contingent at Middlesbrough. Scotland’s top clubs also ceded talent to lower-league English clubs, Mark Reynolds and Scott Arfield moving to League One.
If we broaden the criteria and include all trades between Scottish and English clubs we can identify even more players we can identify even more players who will line-up in the top two divisions of the English pyramid in 2011/12. Graham Dorrans and Stephen Dobbie will expect to be regular starters at West Brom and Swansea in the Premiership. Leigh Griffiths and Stephen Hughes will also be hopeful of action in the English top-tier while Andrew Halliday, Bob Harris and Jason Scotland left the Scottish lower-leagues for the Championship. Leeds’ midfielder Robert Snodgrass may join former Livingston team-mate Dorrans in the Premiership before the summer is out.

Those moving in the opposite direction have not been of quite the same quality; the annual intake typically comprising has-beens and never-likely-to-bes. Few have brought any genuine improvement to the game in Scotland. There have been some relative successes – Heart’s Kevin Kyle (via Kilmarnock) and Motherwell’s Tom Hately have been astute acquisitions and on his day Aberdeen winger Sone Aluko is a handful for any SPL full-back. Most who do shine – the likes of Coke, Dorman, Porter and Rooney – soon find their way back to England. Or, like Charlie Mulgrew and Anthony Stokes, a move to Glasgow. There they’d find that even Scotland’s big two aren’t immune to the being picked off or priced out by English predators.

Rangers have sold first-team stars Carlos Cuellar and Alan Hutton to England (as well as Charlie Adam who looks a far greater loss now than he did when moving to Blackpool in 2009). In January, top scorer Kenny Miller was sold to Bursaspor. This summer they wouldn’t – or couldn’t - meet the Turkish club’s asking price to bring the home-sick striker back to Scotland. He instead signed for Malky Mackay’s Cardiff, joining fellow Scots David Marshall, Kevin McNaughton, Paul Quinn, Don Cowie and Craig Conway in the Welsh capital. New boss Ally McCoist has however tied down Allan McGregor, Steven Whitaker and Steven Davis on new long-term deals and captured Scotland left-back Lee Wallace from Hearts, winger Juan Manuel Ortiz and Romanian centre-half Doran Goian. Goian made his debut in Saturday’s victory over St Johnstone but is ineligible for second leg of the Champions League qualifier with FC Malmo. The Swedes hold a shock 1-0 lead courtesy of Daniel Larsson’s strike at Ibrox and are clear favourites to progress given Rangers recent European form (just one win in 22 matches). Defeat would surely further hamper McCoist’s ability to add much-needed creativity to a ponderous midfield and bring in another striker to take the burden off the excellent Nikica Jelavic. In any case, Rangers may have to play a waiting game; waiting to pick up players not wanted by English sides, that is.

Given Rangers’ troubles in the transfer market, Celtic are clear title favourites but they too may have more to fear than cheer in August. Neil Lennon’s transfer dealings may be poles apart from many of his SPL counterparts but they play by the same market rules; Scottish-based talent will always be attractive prey to cash-rich predators in England and elsewhere. The bhoys have so far managed to resist interest in Emilio Izaguirre and Beram Kayal, but bids in excess of £5m for either would likely test chief executive Peter Lawwell’s resolve. Scotland’s most affluent club cannot compete with the riches on offer in England and even top Championship players like Shane Long seem beyond Celtic’s reach. Two of this summer’s signings have instead come from the substitute’s benches of Cardiff (Adam Mathews) and Nottingham Forest (Kelvin Wilson); between them the defenders played just 19 times last season. The third, highly-rated teenage midfielder Victor Wanyama, arrived from Germinal Beerschot for £900,000; if the Kenyan realises his potential in Glasgow both club and player would expect a lucrative transfer south.

Celtic enter the Europa League at the final play-off stage and will be expected to reach the group stages, irrespective of who they’re paired with in Friday’s draw. Potential opponents include German sides Hanover and Mainz and Trabzonspor, second in last season’s Turkish Super Lig. They should overcome any opponent but relief rather than celebration will be the dominant emotion if they do. They may have to progress if they’re to hold on to stars like Izaguirre, Kayal and Ki Sung-Yeung; last year’s early European exit forced the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscow for a club record fee.

It’s all a far cry from the heady days when Lennon marshalled a midfield containing Paul Lambert and Lubomir Moravcik, the supply line for attacking talent like Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton. Back then, Barcelona, Juventus and AC Milan were among those beaten on raucous European nights in Glasgow’s east end. This will however be the third season in a row without Champions League football at Celtic Park. And with every year of Scottish failure in Europe, the likelihood of Champions League football returning to Glasgow – in the east or south-west of the city – diminishes. The number of European places and stage of entry is determined by the national co-efficient, seeding by the club’s own. These co-efficients are based on the last 5 years of European competition. That means from next year on, Scotland’s stand-out season, 2007/08 – Celtic lost to Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League; in the Uefa Cup, Aberdeen memorably progressed to the knockout stages before defeat to Bayern Munich and Rangers went all the way to the final, losing to Zenit St Petersburg – will no longer be taken into consideration. This will impact all clubs through the national co-efficient losing almost half its current total, and the loss of vital points will likely see both Celtic and Rangers slide into the un-seeded halves of future draws.

Next year though, Scotland will have two representatives in the Champions League qualifiers - ironically enough, this was confirmed by a late Aiden McGeady goal for Spartak Moscow that knocked Swiss side Basel out of the Europa League last season, and helped Scotland leapfrog Switzerland in the rankings. It is however, only a temporary reprieve: unless drastic improvements are made over the next two seasons it seems unlikely that Scotland will have two representatives in the Champions League qualifiers in the foreseeable future. And in every competition, Scottish sides will begin their European campaigns in the earlier rounds of the qualification process.

It’s a bind Scottish clubs will find difficult to break free of, especially when there’s an annual run on the league’s best players. Without European success, they cannot attract or retain players of the quality to compete in Europe (or attract paying punters through the gates) and with every passing year, Scottish clubs are being sucked further and deeper into this vicious cycle.

The Scottish national team are in a similar position. Following six successive unsuccessful qualification campaigns they were seeded in pot four for Europe's World Cup qualifying draw. Although Scotland fans will be glad to have missed big guns like Spain, Germany and the Netherlands in Saturday's draw, they will not be fancied to get through a difficult qualifying group comprising Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales. Only the winners are guaranteed to reach Brazil 2014, the second place likely to reach the play-offs (the worst of the nine group runners-up misses out). Scotland will have to out-perform expectations and the rankings to qualify for their first World Cup in five. The Scots are currently involved in a battle with the Czech Republic for second spot behind Spain in qualification for the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine. The extension of the European Championships to 24 teams from 2016 may provide some salvation but yet another failure will even make that task more difficult.

Scottish football’s ongoing struggles are a classic case of cause and effect: player sales and substandard domestic fare, poor performances on the European and international stages and a drop down the ranking list. The 2011/12 season will be crucial if our game is to break that cycle; if Scotland’s representatives in European club competition and the national team don’t rally to the cause this year, the effect may well be European oblivion and international irrelevance.